University of Virginia Darden School of Business students were champing at the bit this fall to return to the in-person education experience they sought when they chose the School.
Despite the delta variant’s prominence in the U.S., UVA and Darden were able to keep the promise of “a more normal fall,” with 100 percent of scheduled in-person classes for the Full-Time MBA, Executive MBA and Master of Science in business analytics held at full capacity.
“I’m really happy with where we are. There’s a huge sense of relief among students and faculty about being back in person,” said Professor Tom Steenburgh, senior associate dean of the Full-Time MBA. “Last year, students were feeling a bit alone and we didn’t have a lot of international students. This year, we have a bumper crop of globally diverse students who are very engaged.”
To make up for the fact that Full-Time Class of 2022 students never got to spend time in class with the entirety of their sections during First Year core — a hallmark of the Darden experience, Steenburgh said professors came up with a new class called “Core 2.0” that brought sections together in their Second Year to explore their professional passions and grow the crucial section bonds.
“The Core 2.0 idea, and our willingness to engage with students about the idea and willingness of the faculty to pull it off, highlights a lot of what is good about Darden,” Steenburgh said.
Steenburgh said the School also plans to bring back Darden Worldwide Courses this year, traveling to places where COVID-19 restrictions and adequate access to health care allow. In fact, Executive MBAs completed the first Darden global academic experience of any kind since the start of the pandemic with a global residency in Finland and Estonia.
Professor Ron Wilcox, associate dean of executive degree programs, said the return to full-capacity in-person classes has also been welcomed by Executive MBA students. Wilcox said the Class of 2022 built an incredible bond last year, which has made their ability to finally come together this year a “big win.”
Wilcox credited the relatively limited disruption to the Executive MBA experience to the program’s format. “These students in normal times are used to evening Zoom classes. We kept a normal cadence of online learning during the week and some weekends. We were fundamentally more practiced in that environment, so the adaptation was there.”
Just as important as classroom learning for students, club and social activities have returned in full force this academic year.
Darden Student Association (DSA) Vice President for Social Amanda Wear (Class of 2022) highlighted the incredible energy at a welcome back barbecue in August, when 700 First and Second Years came together to celebrate the start of the year — many meeting in person for the first time. She said the DSA paid special attention to kicking off the year for Second Years this fall, given they did not experience any of the traditional start of school year events last year.
“We held a formal reception in PepsiCo Forum,” Wear said. “I don’t think anyone had seen their classmates dressed up. It was a really nice cocktail hour.”
Wear said normal activities have had an exciting amount of energy, too, such as the daily First Coffee, with students once again flooding PepsiCo Forum for a drink and the chance to connect.
Wear said the DSA has gone to great lengths to reestablish old traditions, even holding Zoom calls with the Class of 2018 to understand how events the classes of 2020 and 2021 didn’t get to organize should be run. “They answered everything. What is it supposed to look like? What are we supposed to do? How do we do it?”
However, current students are also taking the opportunity to establish new traditions discovered during the pandemic, such as small section mixers and a progressive Halloween trick-or-treating party, that emphasize more intimate connection.
“There’s a positive of not having a strict playbook,” Wear said. “We can take what we liked last year and morph it to this year to make the experiences what we want.”
Importantly, however, Wear wants alumni to know one thing has not changed: “There’s a very big Darden community culture. I’m in Section E and we are still an absolute cult. Section B still wears orange Hawaiian shirts on Thursdays. The rivalry among sections is still friendly and alive. We’re preserving what was passed down to us.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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